Director/Coscreenwriter: Guillermo Del Toro
By Roderick Heath
Since his debut with Cronos (1993), Guillermo Del Toro has stood as one of the few major arbiters of a near-bygone attitude in contemporary fantastic cinema. That attitude still floated to the surface even in his stabs at epic, vibrant crowd pleasers, including Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2009) and Pacific Rim (2013), where a delight in the colour and spectacle of blockbuster cinema blended with a fervent belief in melodrama as a form that demands no apology. The brand of pop surrealism apparent even in Del Toro’s action works saw machines of the superego take on the welling forces of the id. Crimson Peak, his latest, is a partial reversion to another strand of his cinema and another province of his obsessions—outright gothic horror and classically contoured ghost stories.
This streak was previously parlayed in his Spanish-language works, The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), tales pitched in the keys of haunting loss and reality-transmuting fantasy mixed with bizarre and thunderous thriller plots that evoked political dimensions, as both of those films took place during the Spanish Civil War. Like many films these days, Crimson Peak blends homage with its own purposes, serving as a visual tour through the history of screen horror, evoking aspects of German expressionism, Universal and Hammer horror, 1940s gothic melodramas, and the romantic decadence of Italian horror. Del Toro declares his allegiances the moment you hear the heroine’s name is Edith Cushing.
The setting is turn-of-the-20th-century Boston with all its protomodernity of motor cars and typewriters as still-new but swiftly adopted technology. Edith (Mia Wasikowska) is the product of clashing social systems, the safe but cloying enclosure of a traditional ideal of femininity and her father’s “go get ’em” Americanness. Crimson Peak shifts territory from Del Toro’s earlier ghost stories, as it’s not about a child struggling in an adult world, though most of his protagonists are defined by similar experiences of being orphaned and left adrift in that world, a theme that also secured Hellboy, Pacific Rim’s Mako Mori, and even Blade to Del Toro’s personal universe. Edith certainly has the same quality of the innocent abroad about her, and she, too, is left alone to survive and finds herself in the midst of a situation she understands through the intuition of signs and distorted simulacra rather than from more worldly cues and hints. Edith, daughter of respected financier and former steel manufacturer Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver), has ambitions to become a writer, but faces rebuff by a sniffy, patronising publisher at the outset because her book has no romance and is a ghost story. “It’s not a ghost story,” she protests, “It’s a story with a ghost in it.” Edith has a peculiar affinity with ghosts, however, as her mother’s spectre appeared to her as a young girl shortly after her funeral, delivering enigmatic warnings about a place called Crimson Peak. The shade returns and renews its entreaties not long after Edith’s eye is caught by a darkly handsome stranger who approaches her father for capital: Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), an English baronet, trying to finance development of a digging machine he’s designed to revive his family’s clay mining business.
Encountering Thomas at her father’s workplace, where she labours during the day as a secretary, and then in local society, Edith falls under his spell. He encourages her out of her intellectual bubble and offers her a moment of metamorphosis as he dances a waltz with her at a society ball. Thomas is accompanied by his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), whose taciturn and boding manner manifests as she takes entomological interest in dying butterflies and runs frostbite eyes over Edith. Edith has a childhood pal, Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), now an eye doctor setting up practice in the same building as her father who shares Edith’s interest in spiritualism. He only starts to recognise his deeper affection for her as she’s pulled into Thomas’ orbit, whilst his mother (Leslie Hope) looks down her nose at the unglamorous would-be writer. Carter takes an immediate dislike to Thomas he can’t quite account for at first, except that as a self-made American, he can’t stand Thomas’ air of slightly effete, quixotic inspiration and softness.
Later, as it becomes plain that Thomas is pursuing Edith, Carter hires a private detective, Mr. Holly (Burn Gorman), to investigate the Sharpes. Holly turns up something disturbing enough to make Carter call the Sharpes to his office and confront them. He pays them off and orders them to leave town quickly, whilst also extracting a promise from Thomas to break off with his daughter in a suitably jarring and heartbreaking way. Thomas obediently does so, humiliating Edith in front of a dinner party’s guests by disdaining her writing and lack of life experience. The next day, as Carter prepares to shave in the bathroom of his club, someone sneaks in and kills him by bashing his head against a sink to make it look like he’s died in a fall. Thomas returns and marries Edith, and then he and Lucille whisk her to England and introduce her to the lugubrious grandeur of their family manse, Allerdale Hall.
This long first act proves one of the more surprising aspects of Crimson Peak. Del Toro flirts interestingly with a Henry Jamesian approach to milieu, a sense of the personal and the cultural intersecting, and commences in an essentially realistic frame whilst setting up a move into perfervid weirdness. The film continues in this vein even as that weirdness floods the screen, taking its characters with unexpected seriousness even as they perform archetypal functions to the point where the chief source of tension in the last act stems from anticipating where the twists of character loyalties will lead. Of course, James himself notably departed from his serious social tales with his famous ghost story The Turn of the Screw, which locates the source of horror in the strange and twisted psychological reactions of its repressed and rootless female protagonist. Del Toro isn’t interested in ambiguity of genre—he’s far too fond of the imagery and mechanics of spookfest traditions—but if it wasn’t for the ooky-kooky wraith that appears in the first few minutes, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve stumbled into some classy literary adaptation. Del Toro turns the waltz Thomas and Edith take into a subtly symphonic moment of swooning romanticism with a touch of the sublime indicated by their ability to dance whilst keeping a clutched candle lit. Thomas’ mastery of courtly arts and aura of bruised poeticism let him sustain waning aristocracy with Yankee money, a phenomenon that was very real in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. There’s a meta touch to making Edith a penner of the kinds of stories she’s about to get herself into—I detect a hint, deliberate or not, of Joseph Mankiewicz’s lampoon The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), which likewise turned on a similar conceit of literary self-reference.
A number of contemporary ghost tales made for the cinema have been set like Crimson Peak in the first quarter of the 20th century—Haunted (1995), The Woman in Black (2011), The Awakening (2012)—because the era presents a telling, yet quaint, opposition between evolving modernity and the persistence of the irrational, and they often reference the actual explosion in interest in spiritualism of the period. Del Toro goes a few steps further. Just as he looked to the schisms of Spanish history to ground his dark fantasias in a real-life sense of angst and unhealed wounds, here Del Toro takes New and Old Worlds as a similar line of division and angst. The narrative immediately touches several essential aspects of gothic melodrama: the loss of a parent, the heroine’s aura of intellectual independence colliding with desire, the coming of the Byronic stranger and the triangle formed with a more parochially charming suitor, and the eventual shift to strange territory in the form of the grand old house that contains dark and potentially destructive secrets that the young bride must either defeat or be consumed by. The 1940s were a high point for this mode of cinema, perhaps nudged on by the success of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940)—Mankiewicz’s debut Dragonwyck (1946), Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase (1945) and Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Strange Woman (1946), the Gainsborough melodramas in Britain. By the finale, there’s a dash of Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964), too. Wasikowska has already played the heroine of a classic text in this style, Jane Eyre, a few years back, whilst Del Toro, with his lexicon of influences, readily invites comparisons with Rebecca. Del Toro isn’t particularly Hitchcockian as a filmmaker, but he clearly has an intellectual kinship with Hitchcock’s general delight in tales of seething repression, covert truths, and subversive hungers. Hitchcock returned to gothic territory with Under Capricorn (1948) and ultimately transmuted it into something newer and stranger with Psycho (1960).
Once the film reaches Allerdale Hall, Del Toro takes a swift turn into the saturated colour tones and densely miasmic moods of mid-century horror cinema. Del Toro is undoubtedly one of the great craftsmen of contemporary film, and his filmmaking throughout Crimson Peak hums with a sense of cinematic largesse. Del Toro infuses Lucille with a characteristic close to his own heart, a fascination for insect life, and turns an allusive moment when Edith and Lucille chat about American and British species of butterflies and moths, into a visual aria of a scene: butterflies paralysed in the chill evening become prey for swarming ants, filmed in colossal close-up. The foreshadowing is obvious—Edith is the butterfly, Lucille the black ant—but the effect is eerily sublime. As is right and correct in the gothic tradition, Allerdale Hall is a character in the film, a triumph for Del Toro and his production designer, Thomas E. Sanders, in creating a physical structure that has a quality of mimetic trap littered with remnants of past lives and decaying in synch with the psyches of its characters. Giant moths infest corners of the house. A great hole in the ceiling above the foyer lets snow collect on the floor, a rickety elevator connects the house with the basement and treacherous old mine workings. Mouldy, giant portraits gaze down on Edith and perverse spectres flit in the shadows and peer upon her. Thomas’s digging machine huffs and trembles like a great metal dinosaur hewing at the earth. The weird soil mixture in the hill the Hall stands on sees blood-coloured muck welling up, giving the hill its name; yes, this place is Crimson Peak.
Once safely ensconced again in their home, the Sharpes press Edith to sell her father’s estate to finance work on the digging machine. Meanwhile, Alan, troubled by the mysteries swirling around Carter’s death and the newlyweds’ swift departure, begins investigating, and thanks to information from Holly, begins putting together the terrible pattern behind the Sharpes’ activity—a truth that begins unfurling to Edith in a more urgent form. Edith keeps seeing spectres about the Hall, bearing signs of violent death. Although they terrify the hapless young bride, they seem to be trying, like her mother’s shade, to warn her about the hidden evil around Allerdale Hall. The early line about a story with ghosts in it seems an evident pitch on Del Toro’s part to gain a certain breed of critical favour, but it also helps make viewers aware of the way the supernatural and the corporeal interact in his story, with these ghosts operating more as totems of awful things, which is generally what tales of hauntings have traditionally served as, ways of preserving and communicating dread events and attaching them to places where they occurred in folklore. But Del Toro also loves spooks far too much to reduce them to the realm of the merely symbolic and the suggestive a la Val Lewton. This proves a major flaw, or at least superfluity, in Crimson Peak. The manifestations of the supernatural are both unnecessary and not terribly well handled (then again, I think the same thing about some of spooks in The Shining, 1980).
This is an odd weak point for Del Toro, who’s made a career out of his wholehearted love of the fantastical and his talent for illustrating it; perhaps that’s part of the problem, that it’s just too reflexive for Del Toro, who otherwise does a remarkable job here of blending multiple frames of reference. But the juddering, squirming, hissing wraiths that dog Edith are far too obvious, even clichéd displays of special-effects cinema, reminiscent of those in some of the rather lame horror films Del Toro has produced recently (like Mama, 2011). I get the feeling he and script collaborator Matthew Robbins (who once upon a time directed the interesting genre revision Dragonslayer, 1982) merely added ghosts to the film as a concession to presumed audience expectations, a way of sneaking them an uncool genre exercise in the guise of another. There’s a tension within Crimson Peak that doesn’t entirely resolve between the expansive showmanship manifest in Del Toro’s visual and conceptual approach and the stringencies of his story, which unfolds with a classical, near-leisurely interest in characterisation and mood, milieu and atmosphere. On the other hand, Del Toro resists turning his work into a mere haunted house ride. Crimson Peak probably counts as the first major stab at a true, unabashed gothic work since Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999), and it does have a surprising number of concerns in common with Burton’s Dark Shadows (2012), without the variable levels of humour: Del Toro is in earnest. That’s not to say Crimson Peak doesn’t earn any horror stripes either, it just belongs to a different branch. The scene of Carter’s murder references Dario Argento’s Deep Red (1975) and nods to the common giallo ploy of playing games with the gender of the killer.
Argento’s predecessors Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava seem generally much closer to Del Toro’s thoughts than giallo, however, in the diseased romanticism of their gothic-accented horror works that took inspiration equally from Hitchcock and Edgar Allen Poe. Crimson Peak shares similar points of obsession with Bava’s Lisa and the Devil (1972) and particularly Freda’s The Horrible Secret of Dr. Hichcock (1962)—sexual deviance, piano playing, insidious presences, poisoned drinks, a house as all-but-organic presence. Ultimately, although both spooks and the equally insidious nature of money figure in this tale, boiling human passions edging into the realm of madness are the real stakes and drivers, as Edith is confronted by the true grotesqueness of perverted lives and psychopathy channelled into relished crime. Del Toro can face up to the sorts of fetid underlying motives that generally had to be communicated more discreetly in classic genre inspirations: he ultimately reveals that Thomas and Lucille, having grown up isolated and neglected in the tottering towers of Allerdale Hall, have long engaged in an incestuous relationship. It’s an apt, if icky, revelation; quite often in classical mythology, the dark secret at the heart of many a riddle was a similar revelation (e.g., Oedipus, the parentage of Siegfried). The siblings have developed a modus operandi of marrying Thomas to rich, solitary women for their money, and having Lucille murder them with the same brutal relish she turned on their mother. It’s not hard to guess the grim intent at the heart of the Sharpes’ plan, and I also guessed the dread secret they harbour, too. But the pleasure of the story here is wrapped up with both its uncertainties and its fervency, the emotions and conflicting desires that ultimately create a deadly situation Edith has to fight her way out of, and the way Del Toro’s superlatively conjured creative universe illustrates that psychic landscape.
Hunnam played the jut-jawed young hero of Pacific Rim, and here inhabits a role akin to the sort David Manners used to play in the early Universal horror films—the square, upright character who keeps matters rooted in a less bizarre reality and whose traditional brand of heroism seems weirdly pallid in such a context. In ’80s slasher movies, they usually turn up dead sometime in the fifth reel, but here his search gives Robbins and Del Toro an excuse to steal one of the cleverest narrative touches from Joseph Ruben’s thriller The Stepfather (1987) when the time comes for the storylines to collide. It’s in its last act that Crimson Peak finally slips its moorings and goes gloriously over the top, as the tensions sustaining the triangle of Edith, Thomas, and Lucille crumble after Thomas gives into his real affection for Edith and sleeps with her, driving Lucille into a fit of psychotic, vengeful violence.
One of Del Toro’s most distinctive traits is his ability to find humanity in even the most bizarre figures, and he locates real pathos in Thomas and Lucille, who lesser filmmakers would probably have reduced to mincing caricatures once necessary narrative games were dispensed with. Here, Lucille and Thomas become all the more interesting and strange the more their crimes and their own sufferings become clearer, particularly as Thomas tries to prod his sister toward self-awareness over what their attempts to avoid change have turned them into—and, of course, that sort of awareness is exactly the hardest thing to countenance. Hiddleston has a gift for suggesting things shiftless and septic under the surface of his lean English charm has been exploited well by several filmmakers lately, and he does fine work here, chiefly because like Del Toro he enjoys the pathos of tortured figures. Not without reason, if also by accident, has his Loki evolved into the heart of the Marvel franchise. Here, his performance reminded me a little of Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, particularly in the underregarded Psycho II (1981), a film that recast the former serial killer as a troubled antihero.
Chastain’s slow-burn performance, suggesting degrees of tightly suppressed feeling at the beginning and slowly unsheathing lunacy laced with relished villainy, most effectively channels the melodrama spirit, particularly as Lucille slips the few bonds that keep her restrained and sends the film spiralling off with her into delirious realms. She’s most enjoyable letting a sweetly psychopathic pleasure sneak into her manner as she enjoys the chance to finally squash Edith under her thumb like a bug. Chastain remains one of the most interesting performers around at the moment because she can adapt her performing style to suit her material, and here she’s required to keep her characterisation just on the near side of camp. The finale’s loopy force makes up for some of the problems in Crimson Peak’s unfolding, proffering the image of a thoroughly unhinged Lucille pursuing Edith through the dank confines of Allerdale.
The gears not just of story, but also within the iconography of Del Toro’s images, snap at last into perfect alignment: the Victoriana dolly nightgowns flowing in the dark and splattered with blood, the bars of the elevator crashing on delicate flesh, Chastain’s eyes bugging with vicious glee as she hefts a colossal axe intending to plant it in Wasikowska’s head, the cellar with blood-filled pits and bobbing bodies, the flakes of fairytale snow flitting in through high places, and then, finally, the wasteland of ice and metal where the final confrontation takes place. It’s like some lost last reel of a fondly imagined Joan Crawford movie viewed through a prism of freaked-out cosplayer chic and Final Girl survival drama, one that lets the ladies get down to business. Here, Del Toro cashes the check his labours have written and caps Crimson Peak as a grand experience in spite of its hesitations.